April 9, 2017
Julie and I just got home from almost two weeks on a journey out East to Gettysburg, Philadelphia and Washington. A great trip which we thoroughly enjoyed. It was a rather simple journey for us; the bus picked us up in front of our house on Monday morning. We rode the bus to restaurants, hotels, tourist sites. Our only real responsibility was to get on the bus when it was time to go to the next site on our journey.
Today we mark a new site on the faith journey of our two confirmands, Mariah and Katelyn. We first met them 9 years ago when they joined Mary and Roger's family. They officially began their faith journey, got on the bus of faith if you will, on November 16, 2008 when they were baptized right here in this sanctuary...by me.
Today we also mark Palm Sunday, the next site on the journey of Jesus, He'd stared his incarnation as a baby, then went from carpenter to itinerant preacher to one hailed in today's reading as “the Son of David”, a term used for the Messiah. And of course we know that the people quickly turned on Jesus and, under the influence of the religious leaders of the day, had him killed.
To enter the Jerusalem that day, he had to first “get on the bus”, which in his case was a donkey. Not quite the level of comfort one would expect of the Messiah. Theologian Marcus Borg suggested that perhaps on the other side of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate was returning to the city...he spent as much time as he could away from the city at his lakeside retreat in Caesarea. But for the Passover, he needed to be in Jerusalem. Now his “bus” would look completely different. He would have ridden in on a beautiful, large, imposing, decked out steed. Soldiers would have surrounded him with flags flying and swords gleaming; marching feet, creaking leather, clinking bridles and the beating of drums. Impressive, fear-inducing, sobering...but no one was shouting “Hosanna” in Pilate's parade.
Quite a contrast...the ruler of the universe arriving on a donkey; the earthly ruler of a small province arriving with a display of great power and might. How we travel today is still an indication of perceived importance. The powerful drive their BMW while some of us get around in an old Ford pickup. Jesus entered Jerusalem in a 1957 Studebaker, Pilate had a Mercedes Benz. And who would ever suspect that these two such different people were destined to be tied together forever? An itinerant preacher and the powerful representative of the great Roman government. And yet, as we say in the Apostles' Creed, Jesus suffered and died under this Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate.
So what does this say to us today? For one thing, it is about the value Jesus put on humility. Jesus identified with the weak and the powerless. He was the creator of the world, he could have anything he wanted. But in his life and in how he chose to spend his final days, Jesus showed us the importance of depending on God rather than claiming the privileges this world offers the powerful. It is so hard for us to see beyond our own desires and, like Jesus, see the world through God's eyes.
Julie and I spent a full day in Gettysburg seeing the world in a very different way. So many lives lost! So much suffering and sacrifice. It was heartbreaking to visit the cemetery and see that over half of the Union soldiers buried there were never identified. Families torn asunder in a war of brother against brother. It was fought face to face, hand to hand. And as we walked the town and considered the battle strategies, we were reminded that the world was a very different place back then. I ran across a story I'd like to share. It comes from that same time period but is from England. Sarah Gooder was a young girl working in the coal mines of England. I share this letter she wrote.
“I am Sarah Gooder. I am eight years old. I'm a coal carrier in the Gawber mine. I go to work at four... in the morning and come out at five... in the evening. It does not tire me but I have to work without a light and I'm scared. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the coal pit. I am very sleepy when a go in the morning. I go to Sunday school and learn to read. They teach me to pray. I have heard of Jesus many a time. I don't know why he died, but he had stones for his head to rest on.”
Imagine that, eight year old young girls working 14 hour days in a coal mine. It is hard to imagine how different the world was 15o years ago. But notice what Sarah Gooder took from the story of the life of Jesus.... “He had stones for his head to rest on.” That particular facet of Jesus' life made an impression on a young girl who lived a very dark life. Jesus. Like Sarah Gooder, had none of the privileges, the luxuries we take for granted every day. The humble life that Jesus chose in his life is a humility that sees beyond our own desires to see the needs of others. The message of the life of Jesus is humility, serving with love and grace.
Our Epistle reading certainly affirms his humility. It is worth hearing again:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.”
As we enter Holy Week, we are reminded of his greater purpose, death on the cross in order to overcome the powers of sin and death. Jesus and Pilate came together on that Good Friday 2000 years ago. They were on different journeys, different buses. And that week, that day marked the great contrast in their journeys, in their lives. Pilate—the power to, and inclination to, take the life of anyone who challenged the authority of Rome which he represented. Jesus—willing and able to give his life for the least, the lowliest, the weakest, the lost in this world. And each of us has a choice to make as we travel this journey of life. Will we follow the example of Pilate? To choose power and wealth, to take advantage of our positions of wealth (for we are wealthy by almost every standard compared to the rest of the world). Or will we follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his life for others? Will we live a life of humility; humbling serving those with whom we come in contact each day? If we choose Jesus, it means we are committed to a life of service, a life where we are willing to put the needs of others above our own. It means that Jesus is the Lord of our lives and we give up the power to live any way we please.
Julie and I were indeed privileged to take the trip to see so much history. We had little responsibility as I explained. We had to get on the bus to go to the next step on that journey through history. Today, here at First Presbyterian, we mark another step on the journey of faith for Mariah and Katelyn. They will be asked three questions of faith that reflect the choice they are making today. We contrasted the way of Pilate and the world with the way of Jesus and the cross. The girls will be asked to make clear their choice to turn away from sin and evil. They will confirm their choice of Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And then they will pledge their intention to obey Jesus and show his love int their lives. It is a big commitment. It is a choice they are making. But as we witness their confirmation ceremony, answer their questions once again for yourself.
Mariah and Katelyn officially join the First Presbyterian Church today. We don't all start in the same place, but we all have the same destination. Confirm you need of God's mercy, reaffirm your trust in the grace of Jesus and promise to be his disciple. Jesus calls us to follow him. Each and every day, we are called to get on that bus of faith and live a life that reflects the love and grace of Jesus. The trip is free. The final destination is eternal life with our Lord and Savior. Get on the bus; the bus of salvation, the bus of service, the bus of faith! Amen.
Hymn: Baptized in Water 492 PH